Choderlos De Laclos’ epistolary novel was greeted with cries of outrage, a reprehensible abomination and a slur on 18th Century French society. Yet, despite the uproar the book caused, it soon became a best seller and many members of the French aristocracy were claiming that the libertine characters portrayed in the novel were based on themselves.
Christopher Hampton’s adaptation of the novel was greeted with equal success, and the RSC’s 1985 production had a successful run in the West End, and the adaptation was also made into a movie, directed by Stephen Frears. With such a great pedigree I wondered how director Tim Fywell could make such a hash of Hampton’s play?
This drama about sexual conquests, cruelty and wanton abandonment relies for its vitality upon a strong portrayal of its two central characters, Vicomte de Valmont and the widowed Marquise de Merteuil. The plot concerns the rivalry between these two ex-lovers as they compete in a game of licentiousness in which they prey upon the virtuous and the vulnerable for their amusement. They disdain emotions as hypocritical and weak, and yet despite their attempts at attachment, it is their own denied emotions that eventually become their undoing.
Polly Walker as the Marquise never creates an air of bored elegance and cold-hearted connivance. Nor did I sense that her ridicule of respectability may also be a pretence with which to smoother her feelings of jealousy for her former ex-lover, Vicomte. Her portrayal lacks the finesse one would associate with French Aristocracy. Jared Harris does better as Valmont, the dashing aristocrat who seduces young convent-educated girls and virtuous respectable wives. But there is too much of a handsome Casanova in his portrayal of Valmont, rather then of a dangerous sexual pursuer that victimises innocent women.
In Fywell’s production the wantonness seems more trivial then inexcusable, and so Laclos' shocking novel about debauchery looks decidedly antiquated. By the time the play comes to its tragic conclusion, I was too bored to care about the outcome.
(Photo Credit: Alastair Muir)
What other critics had to say.....
RHODA KOENIG for THE INDEPENDENT says, "A production worth seeing only for the play itself." MICHAEL BILLINGTON for THE GUARDIAN says, "Although Tim Fywell's revival has its strengths, it misses the comic irony that pervades Hampton's scintillating text." CHARLES SPENCER for THE DAILY TELEGRAPH says, "Erotic thriller falls horribly flat." IAN JOHNS for THE TIMES says, "Should be as sharp as a guillotine but swiftly descends into tedious blandness."